In a study posted by Shared Hope International, 42% of Internet users age 10-17 years old admit to viewing online pornography. Before getting too concerned, consider that 66% of these children reported that they viewed this material accidentally while attempting to access age-appropriate programs. This begs the conversation to parents and caregivers: How do we protect our children and if they do view pornography, how do we respond?
Parents sometimes wonder if their child will be traumatized from the exposure. While prolonged exposure to pornography can elicit negative emotional responses, the greater potential for harm and shame can come from a parent’s reaction. The best course of action a parent can take is to address the behavior in an age-appropriate manner, being careful not to overreact.
Educating your child on the risks of inappropriate, adult content online should include discussions on sexuality and Internet safety. So, what does the conversation around Internet pornography look like between parent and child?
A conversation with your teenager about accessing online pornography is going to go a lot smoother if you’ve already established a language around sexuality with age-appropriate conversations in their elementary and middle school years.
Being upset will make your child worried that they are in trouble. Stay calm and thank your child for being brave enough to let you know and reassure your child that you will sort it out together.
If your child has accidentally stumbled upon explicit content, ask them to tell you about how they found it. Ask them how they located it on their device. This will help you know how you can improve security measures. Find out where it happened, who (if anyone) showed it to them, how they felt when they saw it, and what they viewed. Remember, understand rather than reprimand.
4)Reassure your child that they are not in any trouble:
Avoid punishment. This will hurt your relationship. It will also reduce the likelihood your child will come to you about tricky issues in the future. Don’t take their device from them immediately or they’ll feel punished. That may come later, but for now, be calm and let them know they’re not in trouble.
Remember, your child may be upset about finding pornography, or if they were searching around curiously, even a little traumatized that it was more explicit than they could have imagined. We need to be supportive and understanding, acknowledging how upsetting it can be to see these types of things.
Once you and your children are calm, and are able to talk things through, it is time for the pornography conversation:
You don’t have to have this conversation as soon as you discover that your child viewed pornography. The first three steps, above, are for that conversation. The following ideas are the “follow-up” talk:
5)Plan your talk:
While it is tempting to have a big lecture right there on the spot, it is better to take some time out to plan your conversation about pornography and sex before you start the discussion.
If younger children have accidentally viewed online pornography, try saying something like: “I’m sorry that showed up while you were on the computer. Those videos are intended for adults, not children. Together, let’s find some better sites for you to visit that won’t show those kinds of images. Do you have any questions?” From there, follow the child’s lead in a developmentally appropriate way.
6) Talk about how they felt:
Did watching this make your child feel good, bad, safe, scared, uncomfortable, curious, or something else? All of these feelings are normal, and children should know it’s fine to feel like that. Most children will feel a mix of curiosity and revulsion.
You can also use this as a chance to teach about real intimacy. Did what they viewed seem respectful? Were the people involved both wanting to do what they were doing, or were they just acting? You may wish to teach them that a respectful relationship includes sex where both partners agree to what is happening (use the word “consent” and discuss it) and feel good about it. Ask them if what they saw resembled kind and caring intimacy or dominance, power, and disrespect.
Sometimes kids will assume that what they see online is an accurate representation of normal sexual behavior. After exposure, explain to your child that what they are seeing is not real. Sexual behavior is normal but online videos are staged and is not an example of regular sexual behavior.
7) Talk about sex:
You may wish to talk to them about what sex is and why we have sex. Discussions about love and intimacy are important. So, too, are discussions about boundaries, appropriate age and timing for intimacy, and other personal values related to sex and love.
Ask them whether they think it is a good idea to look for those kinds of things on the Internet again. (It’s not.)
Encourage them to think of ways to stay safe. Answers might include:
- Avoiding using keywords that lead to these kinds of images
- Updating security levels on devices
- Keeping devices in public places
- Avoiding friends, relatives, and neighbours who are viewing pornography
- Having regular conversations about what your child is viewing.
*For older children with more free access to the Internet, you may begin to notice a concerning pattern of behavior or perhaps a glance at their Internet history shows access to online pornography. For these children, I’d suggest starting the conversation with a statement like: “It seems that you’ve been spending a lot of time on your tablet lately and by the history, it looks like some of that time has been on sites with adult content. I want to talk with you about some of the risks associated with viewing this material.”
Extra Tip: Encourage your child to talk to you anytime about any questions they have, or anything else they see.
In a perfect world, you will have been having positive conversations about sex and intimacy with your children from an early age. A discussion about pornography may not have been in your plans, but accidental exposure to this kind of content demands a response. These tips can provide a useful springboard to further ongoing healthy conversations about intimate topics with your children.